On Origins of Geographic Term ‘Karabakh’

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Medieval ‘graffiti’ on the wall of Dadivank complex in Nagorno Karabakh. Photo by Emil Sanamyan

For more than seven centuries the area that Armenian and other sources historically called Artsakh, Aghwank (Ar’an) and Khachen has also been known as Karabakh.

While in recent years the term has been often translated as “Black Garden,” there is no academic consensus about that interpretation. According to Moscow-based scholar Aleksandr Akopyan, the term “qara” in Turkic languages referred not just to “black” but also to “many, rich in” and “Karabakh” therefore should be more accurately translated as “rich in gardens.” (Similarly the Russian word тьма can refer both to ‘darkness’ and ‘multitude.’)

The very first recorded use of the term “Qarabagh” comes from Persian scholar Hamdallah Mustawfi al-Qazwini, writing in or about 1340. Akopyan notes that Karabakh originally referred to the lowland areas, but eventually came to cover the highland areas previously known as Khachen (Xach’en) and now as Nagorno Karabakh.

This is confirmed in other sources. Johann Schiltenberger, a German-born mercenary for the Ottomans and later for the Turkomans, was the first to report from the area during his travels in about 1420. In his chapter “Of Armenia,” he describes Karabakh (Karawag) as a “very beautiful plain,” located in the valley between the rivers Kura (or Chur or Cyrus) and Araxes.

Version of the term is also cited by Castilian Ruy Gonzalez de Clavijo, who traveled through the Timur (Tamerlane)-ruled Armenia and Persia in 1404 and referred to Carabaqui as a valley where Tamerlane and his army wintered in months prior.

Тhe 15th century author of “The History of Timur and His Successors” Thovma Metsobetsi is believed to be the first written Armenian source to refer to ‘Karabakh.’ Earlier Armenian authors, including historian Kirakos Gandzaketsi, made no mention of Karabakh and referred to eastern Armenian provinces, including lowland areas, primarily as Artsakh, Aghwank (Aghuania or Albania) and to the mountainous portion of later Karabakh as Xach’en (Khachen).

In 1720s, in their correspondence with Russian Tsar Peter the Great, Armenian feudal lords (meliks) of Karabakh still referred to their lands primarily as Aghwank, in reference to the name of the Aghwank Catholicosate at Gandzasar, and separate from lowland Karabakh.

In the 18th century, the term Karabakh extended from Kura river to Meghri and Sisian. Map fragment from runivers.ru

The Karabakh identity appears to have become more firmly ensconced in the mountainous area since mid-18th century, with the establishment of the Karabakh Khanate and especially since its political center was moved from Shahbulag in the lowlands to the fortress of Shushi. Thus in 1786, while the South Caucasus was still part of the Persian empire, a group of Armenian settlers founded the village of Karabagli in the Russian-controlled Dagestan.

Since then both Armenians and Azerbaijanis have adopted Karabakh as the main name for the mountainous region, reflected both in the declarations of local Armenian national councils in 1918-20 and subsequent establishment of the Nagorno Karabakh Autonomous Oblast and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic.

The term Artsakh has largely fallen out of use, including by Armenians, since the medieval period and until its revival in the 20th century. While more recently officials and media have emphasized the use of Artsakh over Karabakh, Nagorno Karabakh’s recently revised constitution retains both terms.

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